Producing a good podcast goes far beyond plugging in a few mics and hitting record. If you want to make a quality product, a surprising amount of preparation can escalate your podcast from amateur hour to a polished product with loyal listeners. Here’s how to get your show on the road – or ‘net – from start to finish.
Determine the theme and format
Everything starts with the type of podcast you want to record. Your podcast’s theme and format will determine not just how you prepare for each episode, but also what tech you will need for each participant.
For example, if you are coordinating remote participants via Skype, it’s a good idea for each to have a nice USB microphone, but you probably don’t need much audio gear beyond that. However, if you plan to record multiple participants at the same location you will need a more sophisticated setup (see the following section).
Audio gear can be pricey, so it’s a good idea to lock-in on format and theme before you go shelling $650 for that shiny, new Mackie Firewire interface. If you’re having trouble making these decisions, consider recording a few initial podcasts with the gear you already have or which you can pick up for free. Even if you don’t release these they will be useful practice for future efforts. Actually sitting down and recording will reveal ideas and challenges that you hadn’t thought of.
Once you are set in your format and theme, it’s you’re ready for one of the best parts of podcasting: buying things!
Acquire the tech
You know you want to talk into microphones. Now it’s time to buy some microphones to talk into. First you’ll need a bit of background. For an introduction to entry-level recording concepts, please skim the first two sections of my column from May, “Minting music: How to setup a DIY recording studio on your computer.” Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Great. Now, some additional considerations for podcasting.
A headset microphone can work, but it will make you more vulnerable to breath and handling noise — non-speech sounds that will be a distraction from the polished product you hope to create. Plus, a headset will make you look like a dweeb if it’s a video podcast.
Many setups will require an interface more complicated than Mackie’s Blackjack, a popular and inexpensive USB recording interface. Luckily, no matter how many microphones you need, there is an Onyx interface for you. The $650 Onyx 1220i, with four pre-amps and eight line-level inputs, is a good middling option.
A mixer-based setup will require microphones, mic stands, and cables. The Shure SM58 is a great microphone to start with. Its durability and reliability make it “The World’s Most Popular Live Vocal Mic.” If you don’t like the SM58, there are many other options. Be sure to do some research, though, because many are quite expensive.
The On-Stage Stands MS7920B is a good option for a table-top microphone stand. Getting your microphone into a comfortable position is key, so don’t skimp on stands.
The Pro Co XLR cables found here are good for entry-level applications. Don’t skimp on length. It’s far better to have too much cable than too little.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Radio pros like Leo LaPorte can produce quality content with slight preparation. You are not Leo LaPorte. The more prepared you are prior to recording, the better your podcast will be. Consider each of the following before the show begins.
Timing - How long do you want your podcast to be? There are exceptions (TWIT, notably), but most podcasts should stick to about an hour or less. Anything longer is asking a lot of the listener. Meeting this timing goal likely means sticking to a set length for each segment. You must also take into account the length of any media you will air and for the show intro and sign off. Run a timer for each segment to ensure brevity.
Script it - Don’t be afraid to read a pre-written introduction to begin a segment — as long as you can do so with a natural feel. This provides a smooth lead-in to a more loosely-scripted question set. Developing an introduction is also a good opportunity to think about the structure of the segment — what main points should you cover? What questions must be asked? The more planning of this type, the better. While it can be frustrating to have too-little time for all of your awesome pre-written question, it’s far worse to be embarrassed by having too few topics for the time you need to fill.
Scheduling - How often will your podcast air new episodes? Many podcasts aim for a weekly schedule. This can be difficult to maintain, especially for beginning ‘casters. A twice-monthly schedule may provide more time for preparation or reflection on points to improve. Even a monthly schedule can work for evergreen podcasts — the transcendent You Look Nice Today is an excellent example.
Lawyering - You will need artist consent if you want to play songs or videos during your podcast. One option is to contact the content creator for direct consent. This will often be easier than you think for smaller artists, but could prove impossible for larger ones. You can also use media files that have been specifically licensed for use by others. Creative Commons Search is one great way to find viable content. Freesound.org is also a great source for Creative-Commons-licensed sound effects and field recordings.
Practice - You will be tripped up by things that aren’t covered in this column. Technical issues can be very frustrating, especially with how mysterious audio production can be in the early going. Try to treat each challenge you encounter as an opportunity for learning. Podcasting is fun, so learning how to troubleshoot an issue should be treated as an enjoyable experience. Don’t invite your dream guest to the first podcast episode you hope to record. Instead, start with friends that you will feel comfortable with. This will relieve some pressure.
Human resources - The human elements must also be considered. First, if any friends have sound-engineering skills, now is the time to buy them a six-pack and ask that they impart some of that knowledge. They’ll be able to get you up and running far more quickly than you’ll be able to yourself, especially if you have a more complicated recording setup. If you can convince them to participate in the podcast, all the better.
Participant roles during the podcast should be planned ahead of time. Make sure you know who is introducing each segment and who is serving as the engineer, for example. Avoid conflicts — it can be difficult to both host a podcast and engineer it at the same time. Also distribute and rotate responsibilities so that all participants have opportunities to learn the different roles.